Friday, August 7, 2015

Human Resources

By Scott D. Parker

Last week, I wrote about my trip to the Galveston Railroad Museum for research and for inspiration. This week, I had the wonderful happenstance of asking a simple question...and getting a whole new wrinkle on the new book.

I started the new book on the first of the month. It's a World War II espionage thriller set in the days immediatley preceeding the Nazi invasion of France, Belgium, and Holland. My American characters start the story in Washington and events conspire to compell them to go to England. 

Now, when I originally envisioned this "getting to England" scene, I imagined the scene from all the Indiana Jones films where a map is shown with a red line to indicate the route travelled. Come to find out, when World War II started in 1939, Britain cancelled all civilian air travel. My heroine would not be able to fly to England.

That left ocean liner. Okay, no problem. Helped with the timeline of the story anyway. But then I ran into a road block: where did ocean liners dock in England? I knew it was unlikely to be London, so I assumed it was going to be somewhere on the southern coast. 

Now, my day job is for an oil and gas company with a multinational group of folks who work in my building. There was a gentleman down the hall--and higher on the pay scale--with an accent I pegged on Day One as "John Lennon." That meant Liverpool. A couple of days ago, I stuck my head into his office and asked if he knew anything about where ocean liners docked in Britain in 1940.

He grinned. Asked me to come into his office and shut the door. Then and there, I got a mini-lecture on Liverpool, Bristol, and another port I can't remember right now. White Star Lines was the company who operated all the liners. I knew that name from "Titanic." He preceeded to give me lots of local color about Liverpool, the folks who populated the surrounding region, and the Adelphi Hotel. That last was the answer to my question, "Where might a rich person stay?"

It was awesome. And unexpected. Heck, he even verified that amount of money--and the color of the five-pound note--that my spy was going to use to bribe one of the hotel workers. Who knew he was such a fount  of knowledge? I certainly didn't...until I asked.

So, that's my Lesson Learned this week: don't be afraid to ask folks if they might know something about a topic for your stories. You just might be surprised.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

I only escaped to tell thee

By Steve Weddle

Hey, I'm teaching this month-long short story class over at LitReactor right now.

This first week, we're talking about character and I'm teaching from James Salter's amazing story, "Comet."

He was leaning on the table, his chin in his hand. You think you know someone, you think because you have dinner with them or play cards, but you really don’t. It’s always a surprise. You know nothing.
The story has been top-five for me since I first read it, and I always fall back into it when I'm thinking about character -- how bits and pieces of a person in a story get revealed as the reader works through. It's just a wonderful piece, honestly.

You can read it for free here: Comet by James Salter

OK. I have to get back to class. I only escaped to tell you to read the Salter and think about character.


PS - Paris Review interview with Salter is here

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Tailoring Your Work for a Live Reading

by Holly West

Reading my work aloud remains one of the best techniques I've found to tighten up my prose. Mind you--I don't always do it--but when I do, the work is better for it. Cleaner, more concise, and much less "fluff." As a writer whose tendency is to write more words than are necessary to get my point across, I need all the de-fluffing I can get.

I was reminded of this recently when Eric Beetner invited me to read at a Noir at the Bar event in Los Angeles. There were a lot of readers so he limited our readings to two minutes--daunting at first but it really kept the evening moving. It was probably the best Noir at the Bar event I've ever attended (and I've attended quite a few).

So there's a hint for all of you Noir at the Bar hosts out there--consider limiting the readings to two minutes but adding more readers. We had ten that night and it didn't drag at all (well, if I'm being honest, it did, but only because one of the readers went well over their allotted time. Don't be that person).

Normally I like to read my flash fiction at Noir at the Bars because the form is perfect for it. But in this case, even my existing flash pieces were too long. Instead, I chose an excerpt from my second novel, MISTRESS OF LIES. My aim was to give the audience a taste of what the book was about and to make them want to read more. I had to find a short vignette within the greater novel, something with a defined beginning, middle, and if not an end, then a hook. That's not easy to do, especially when you've only about 375 words to do it in.

Though the passage I chose was short--about 500 words--it still put me over the two minute limit. I couldn't just chop off 125 words off the end because it would've ruined that my vignette. I decided to edit the whole passage from start to finish and ended up adding sentence to the end that doesn't appear in the original novel for my hook.

Just because you're reading from an already published novel doesn't mean you have to adhere to it word-for-word when you're reading it aloud for an audience. Often times, what works in a novel for regular reading isn't going to work as well for a live reading. Having now heard dozens of authors read their work aloud at various events, I can say with confidence that my attention begins to wander after about two minutes, maybe three if they're particularly good. While some of that might be the result of what I call my "adult-onset ADD," I have a feeling I'm not that different from the average audience member.

Once I edited the passage, it read more smoothly. I didn't trip over as many words. Stripped of much of its fluff, it was just better in general. Sure, I'd taken out some things that provided context for the the larger work, but for a reading like this, those things didn't matter. In fact, it's entirely possible that they don't matter to the novel as a whole, either. That might be a subject for another blog post.

In the meantime, don't be afraid to tailor your already-published manuscript for a live reading. It can give your work--and your performance--just the pop it needs for your next event.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Summer of Reading Westerns - July reads

The Summer of reading westerns continues. In July I read 8 westerns (here's the June report card) and a few short stories. 

The Log of a Cowboy by Andy Adams (1903) - Andy Adams was actually a cowboy for many years. He didn't like the romanticizing of the West that was, and remains, prevalent. He advocated for a more realistic depiction of the west and his fiction demonstrated that philosophy. The Log of a Cowboy is his best known work and it succeeds in the author's goal. It is a cattle drive novel, written by cattle man, about a cattle drive, written in a direct style that contains a lot of details about driving cattle. It's a dry novel that is important to the formation of the genre that is both interesting at times and boring as hell at times. It's also a novel that was published in 1901 so there are some, shall we say, un-PC language used. Recommended. Ish. (In the public domain so is available for free online)

The Sea of Grass by Conrad Richter (1936) - This is a novel about one of a few central topics that western fiction deals with, the cattle baron and cattle man vs. the settler. The Sea of Grass is a western written before the boom horse-opera westerns and the rise of the hard-boiled westerns of the 50's and 60's so it has a different feel to it. It's a lusty, melodramatic novel with big characters making bold statements. It's an entertaining, if dated, novel. Side note: I did find the love interest to be a character potentially worth further exploration in another story. She leaves her husband, children and lover behind for a better live in the big city. I wanted to get into her head as it could have been interesting, but Richter never delves into it. Recommended.

The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Henry Neider (1956) - The Authentic Death is the fictional re-telling of the life of Billy the Kid reset in California. It's told in sparse impressionistic language that emphasizes the mythic while also trying, at times, to balance the reality. When people talk of modern revisionist westerns they often forget that revisionist westerns aren't anything new. This is an original take on the genre and a book that does not deserve to be out of print. Side note: This is the earliest usage that I have found, by far, of the word "fuck" in a western. If there is an earlier novel that uses it chime in below. Highly Recommended.

The Hell Bent Kid by Charles O Locke (1957) - I really liked this one. It has a tragic story whose ending is locked in place pretty early on but never feels redundant or, interestingly given the year it was written, gives fully into it's potential noir impulses. This novel also serves its characters well by isolating them, and bringing them into a stark clarity. Highly Recommended.

Tragg's Choice by Clifton Adams (1969) - I have conflicting reactions about this book. I enjoyed the hell out of it but also found it frustrating. The focus here is on a small group of characters with conflicting and overlapping motivations, so it's interesting to see how it all shakes out when the time comes for battle lines to be drawn. But some of the motivations could have been mined deeper. With passages like this Adams shows his comfort in classic noir territory (which he also wrote around the same time):

"When it was over Morrasey stood panting, the heavy .45, still smoking, dangling carelessly in his hand. Well, he thought with a bleakness that was just bearable, that's that. And then he waited for something to happen. He wasn't sure what he expected, but for the past several hours, which had seemed like an eternity, the point to his whole existence, and the hope of rest for Delly, had been centered in the act of killing Omar Jessup."

But nothing changed. Jessup was dead, but so was Delly. And then, slowly but with a fearful thoroughness, it came to him. It was never going to change. No matter what he did, it was never going to change."

Tripwire by Brian Garfield (1973): Tripwire is an action filled revenge story as the protag is screwed out of his part of a big score and goes after the men who left him for dead. Tripwire moves a long at a fast clip before setting up the big finale. Of note is that the protagonist is a black man, something not too often seen in westerns. This one is a lot of fun. Recommended.

The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout (1975) - Swarthout should be having a mini-renaissance with the recent success of The Homesman, but that doesn't seem to be happening. Shame really as he's a hell of a writer. The Shootist was made into a notable western because it was John Wayne's last role before he died. This is the story of a renowned killer who finds out he has cancer and a short time to live. When news gets out he's got a lot to contended with as the dark side of the town emerges and everyone wants a piece of him and his legacy. This is a psychologically dark novel that delves deep into a dying gunfighter's mind and last days. Highly Recommended.

Haxan by Kenneth Mark Hoover (2014) - A weird western where the "weird" elements are played very subtly (arguably too subtly). I enjoyed this novel but also have some nits to pick. Namely that the first person narration doesn't do the main female character any favors. She is shown to be a capable woman, who loves the protag, and has a vested interest in seeing the primary case solved. I would have liked to see her be more central to the action instead of being confined to the hotel. The second book in the series was just released and I look forward to checking it out. Recommended.

I also read the following short stories in June. When I finish the anthology/collection I'll offer my thoughts on it as a whole.

"A Man Called Horse" - Dorothy M Johnson (1949)
"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" - Dorothy M Johnson (1953)
"Lost Sister" - Dorothy M Johnson (1957)

From the collection Westward the Women an Anthology of Western Stories
by Women
edited by Vicki Piekarski:

"On the Divide" by Willa Cather (1896)
"The Last Antelope" by Mary Austin (1909)

From the anthology The Best of the West edited by Joe Lansdale:

"At Yuma Crossing" - Brian Garfield (1986)
"Take a Left at Bertram" by Chad Oliver

From the collection Western Stories: A Chronological Anthology edited
by John Tuska:

"Hank's Woman" - Owen Wister (1892)

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Seven Habits of Bestselling Authors

by Kristi Belcamino


As a newish author, I've spent some time studying what other successful authors do with their time. Luckily, they talk about their habits in interviews and on social media, so I've been able to get a small glimpse of how they spend their days.

Now this won't apply to every bestselling crime fiction author out there, but many of the things below appear to be common factors in those who find the most success in this field. Here is my take from my limited study of bestselling authors. Would love your feedback.

Bestselling authors:

1. Are extremely disciplined. They are writing between four to ten hours a day, at least five days a week. They don't wait for the elusive muse to appear. They stick their backends in a chair and get down to it. Every day.

2. Produce. They publish a book a year, at the minimum. Almost every author making a living by writing and nabbing spots on the bestseller list is putting out a book a year.

3. Study crime fiction in other mediums. Most bestselling authors mention that studying film and TV shows inspires, motivates, and helps them improve in the craft of writing.

4. Exercise on a daily basis and use this time to work out sticky plot points in their heads or meditate on the motives of their characters or just to get their head in the right space to write.

5. Spend a moderate amount of time on social media. They aren't on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr all day long, but they do check in and are a definite presence.

6. Don't give up. Setbacks are a bump in the road, not a stop sign, as a dear friend told me recently.

7. Continually work to improve their craft. Whether it is attending a writing conference when they are just starting out, welcoming feedback from other writers or editors, or just studying books on craft, bestselling authors know they can always become better writers.

Dear reader, would love to hear what other common factors you notice in the habits of bestselling authors!

*PS I have no idea what Joan Didion's work habits were, but think this is the coolest picture ever of one of my favorite writers.